A Town Called Paradise

I hate New York City.

I know that’s unforgivable, bonkers, a hillbilly thing to say, but it has to be said: I hate New York City. Maybe not all of it––for instance, I really love the tiny beagle that sleeps beside his owner in Grand Central Station, who I pass on my way to work every morning. I also like the bomb-sniffing German shepherds in Penn Station, who sit politely and smile as they watch commuters whizzing by. They are the only part of New York’s post-9/11 militarization that I don’t mind.

So, I guess if someone asked me what the best thing about New York City is, my answer would be “The dogs.”

I didn’t always feel this way. I grew up about 25 miles away from the garbage dump known as Times Square, and a trip into the city was always a magical adventure. One of my earliest memories is going to Radio City during Christmastime with my grandparents; we used a parking garage and ate at TGI Friday’s and went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I got a laminated prayer card, and the excitement and novelty of that day surely surpassed any other experience I’d had thus far in my short time on earth. A handful of years later Felicity premiered, and I was only a few episodes in before my 12-year-old self decided that my life’s trajectory could only lead to and take place in and end in New York City. I wanted to be Felicity. I wanted to wear lots of oversized sweaters, drink lots of coffee, and read lots of books, all while having Major Life Experiences and being fought over by sensitive men with good hair in the Big City. And in a most serendipitous turn of events, that dream came partially true (I was not the cause of any male fights) about a decade later. During a time in my life when I was seriously contemplating a PhD in literature, I decided to sign my life over to New York University and let them school me in how to read books “critically” and write long-winded sentences about them for roughly $4,000 a class. Even at the time I knew what I was doing was vaguely irresponsible; I would be tethered to loan servicers for years and possibly ruined financially for life. But ah, what is money in pursuit of a dream?

Cut to present: I do not have a PhD in literature (but I do have a Masters, which is almost pointless but not totally pointless, so there’s that), and checking my account balance is a daily activity. But I am not ruined financially (yet), and I now can look back on my life and remember that two-year period when I lived like a true New York intellectual: holed up every weekend in my childhood bedroom with a blanket over my head, books and journal articles spread around willy nilly, leaving only when a full bladder or hunger necessitated it, or to yell at my brother to stop playing the drums before I truly lost my shit and ended up in the hospital on sedatives. You just can’t put a price on that.

**

Today I work in publishing and commute roughly 90 minutes each way, so it often feels like I see more of Penn Station and the subways and the streets of Midtown East than my own bedroom. Despite having lived there for 28 years, hanging out on Long Island now sometimes feels more foreign than familiar. I went to see a movie last Friday night and at one point looked around and realized everyone but me was in sweatpants, which isn’t something you’ll ever see in the city, unless some kind of natural disaster occurs and destroys all the skinny jeans and slim fits within a 15-mile radius, but probably not even then. I think people would just make new pants from the wreckage and call it high fashion. The abundance of sweatpants in this movie theater, though, was a breath of fresh air and I immediately hated the fact that I wasn’t wearing them too. It is the little, inward (and in this case, admittedly shallow) moments like this when my resentment of the city becomes palpable, churning inside of me like lunch from a food truck. The city is just so not real. It’s so impersonal and uptight. It is frigid. It is, simply, soulless.

That’s the second-most contentious, hillbilly-sounding statement of this essay.

Perhaps it’s just that I haven’t found my place here. Perhaps it’s because I am never fully here, even though I spend most of my waking life here. There’s a difference—I know there’s a difference. I am living my life in what my grad school professors would call a liminal state, stuck between two modes of being and thus part of neither. I’m mentally programmed for the city (rushed, generally antisocial, often unsympathetic), but I’m suburban in my tastes (I like Panera and wearing men’s undershirts and oversized gym shorts to the nail salon). I did a truly New York Thing the other day when I ordered tickets to a comedy show on my phone while walking from the subway to the shuttle train in Grand Central, deftly maneuvering around people and poles and trash cans, but it was also a truly Long Island Thing in that the tickets were for Aziz Ansari at Madison Square Garden.

**

When people find out I live on Long Island, they assume I’m just saving up until I can finally make the move—maybe somewhere in Brooklyn? They’re right to assume I want out of my current living situation; I imagine very few 28 year olds’ first resort is their parents’ house, and it’s definitely not mine. I’d like to move in with my boyfriend, but preferably when he is my fiancé or husband, since to move in before that crucial transition would mean imminent death at the hands of my conservative, traditional parents. But even when that finally happens (making assumptions here, but a girl’s gotta hope), I don’t think the city is where we’ll go. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t.

My boyfriend lives in Brooklyn in a quiet neighborhood with lots of families but also some arty types with tattoo sleeves and rompers and Oxford shoes. There are at least 72 different places to get brunch, and on weekends I’ll sometimes run from his place down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, dodging strollers and bikes like I’m on an obstacle course, which I am. Over the last few years, we’ve walked along the Promenade to admire the skyline, ordered Middle Eastern food and ate it at the small kitchen table in his apartment with glasses of wine, brunched in Brooklyn Heights, walked through Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on a busy Sunday, gone to games and concerts at Barclays Center, and taken a taxi from Manhattan to Brooklyn along FDR Drive, which is actually quite scenic and might stir up some emotions if you’ve had a few drinks and are listening to a song that reminds you of your childhood. We’ve trekked through snow with new furniture from the IKEA in Red Hook and groceries from Whole Foods in Park Slope. New York, especially Brooklyn, holds a central place in our relationship because it’s where we dated and fell in love. But it is not really our place. It’s not my place either.

**

Our place, my place, is 2,500 miles away. I was there this weekend for my boyfriend’s high school reunion, for which I spent a good part trying—and likely failing—to gently explain to all the non-New Yorkers for whom the mythology and magic of New York is very much alive why it is I don’t like it all that much. New York has its good points, sure. Lots of people love it. Lots of people feel like they fit there. Lots of people are moved by what they perceive as its energy and life.

But it gets tiresome, I’d like to say. It’s competitive and hectic. You feel like you always have to be doing something. It’s expensive. Everything is a show. Trains smell like puke and subways smell like pee and the streets smell like garbage. People push and yell and curse at you. I bring hand sanitizer wherever I go because it’s dirty out there. There’s lots of honking all the time, just inexplicable, needless honking. People have lots of goals and do a lot of impressive things, so you feel like shit if you’re not one of them. (I am not one of them.) You never have enough money. Nothing runs on time and places are always closed when you need them to be open. There are a million places to get brunch with unlimited mimosas for $40, which is useless. It’s crowded, and you feel frumpy if you wear flats to a bar. Also, walking everywhere gets old because it makes everything take twice as long.

It’s not like Las Vegas.

**

I went to Las Vegas for the first time in December 2011. I wrote about that trip in an essay, “Vegas ‘With My Girls’.” The essay is sort of jokey, but the feelings expressed are all sincere. I remember sitting on the plane to go home, waiting to take off, and feeling like it was just so wrong. That I shouldn’t be leaving, that I was meant to be there. I’ll be back, I told myself. A few days later I posted an album documenting the four-day Vegas vacation on Facebook; the last picture in the album was taken at sunset on an overpass overlooking the Strip. In a nod to Grease, I included the caption, “This isn’t the end, Las Vegas. This is only the beginning.”

This statement proved prophetic because I was back in Las Vegas a little more than six months later, this time with my boyfriend, whom I had met on Night 2 of Trip 1. Now I go with him twice a year, maybe three times if I’m lucky, to visit his family and friends in the place where he grew up. We spend most of our time in the parts of Las Vegas that aren’t glittery and pulsating with electronic music. His town is a typical suburb, not totally unlike the one I live in on Long Island, but it’s spread out and there are palm trees and neat lawns of sod. The roads have names like “Pebble” and “Stephanie” and “Wigwam,” and there’s a litany of Mexican food chain restaurants. I once saw a waiter carry a scorpion on a plate, trapped underneath a clear plastic cup, through a bar to meet its maker. I’ve gone to a local art festival in downtown Las Vegas, an atomic testing museum, a Mormon bookstore. I’ve sat on a blanket at Cashman Field to watch fireworks as kids ran around and rolled down the side of a hill, squealing. That night, it was 105 degrees at 9 PM. One Fourth of July, my boyfriend and I sat on his covered patio and watched it rain, because rain in Las Vegas is such a rarity that it is kind of an Event when it happens. (On the other hand, when it rains in New York I want to climb under my covers and never wear pants again.) We’ve taken trips to Los Angeles, Zion National Park, the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, Red Rock Canyon, and St. George, Utah. We’ve eaten sandwiches from Port of Subs at Spring Mountain Ranch, and chicken pad Thai at a late-night restaurant in Chinatown. We’ve gone through the Grouchy John’s drive-through twice in one hour because you won’t find better iced coffee anywhere else. We’ve gotten drunk at Frankie’s Tiki Room (arriving just as Andrew Dice Clay was leaving), and ordered takeout there at 3 AM (Roberto’s, obviously), eating nachos at the high-top table surrounded by cigar smoke. I’ve now seen the Pacific Ocean and know what an actual desert looks like. Every time I fly into Las Vegas when there’s still daylight, I make sure I look out the window for the last 30 minutes of the flight so as not to miss the truly awe-inspiring landscapes of the American West that never get old. It’s maybe the only time I feel patriotic.

But we’ve done the glittery stuff too. We’ve played video poker at the Wynn while drinking champagne, gone to clubs and seen popular DJs and that guy who sang “Gangnam Style,” watched fireworks on the Strip all dressed up (heels, bowtie). One night we had a big multi-course dinner and then accidentally crop-dusted Jermaine Dupri’s table. I also saw The Killers at the Cosmopolitan, one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to, moved to tears by Brandon Flowers’ love songs to Las Vegas. For me, these songs reveal how deeply underestimated and undervalued the city is, and yet how rich its inner life, history, and people. The Las Vegas of these songs is one I don’t know fully yet, but it’s the one I know exists because of the glimpses I’ve had of it over the years, and the feelings I get when I’m there.

It’s true I fell in love not only with Las Vegas, but also with someone from Las Vegas, and it’s impossible for me to separate those two things. And it’s also true that they aren’t separate. Would I envision my life there as clearly as I do now if I had never met my boyfriend? Probably not. But that doesn’t change how at home I feel when I’m there, how I feel like I belong there like some people feel like they belong in New York City. In the same way that some praise New York City for liberating or fulfilling them in ways their hometown never did or could, I feel the same might be true for Las Vegas and me. I don’t feel rushed when I’m there. I don’t feel grumpy and stressed out. I don’t have to answer the question “So what do you do?” and even when I have gotten some version of that question, the answer is always received with enthusiasm and interest rather than judgment. I don’t have to dress to impress just to go to the grocery store. I don’t feel claustrophobic and dirty. I don’t really have to carry around hand sanitizer. (I do anyway because I’m too far gone.) To date, I have not witnessed anyone cursing each other out on the streets over an alleged invasion of personal space. When I go running in my boyfriend’s neighborhood, everyone waves and says “Morning!”

Plus, you can get a two-bedroom apartment for $800 a month, it never snows, and Costco sells liquor. Las Vegas is my Eden.

**

One day I’ll live in Las Vegas. I’m not sure people believe me when I say this. After all, I’ve lived in one place my whole life, and in the same house my whole life. I’m the person who tried going away to college and had to transfer because of homesickness and what was essentially a fear of drugs, drinking, and sex. Is that same person really going to be able to pack up her whole life and move across the country?

I have this thought frequently, usually right after I return from a Las Vegas visit. It never feels right leaving, so that must count for something, right? But surely others have had this same feeling—it’s Las Vegas, after all––and maybe some of those people moved out there and now wish they hadn’t. There’s probably at least a few people out there who moved to Las Vegas recently and are underwhelmed by it all, who can’t really get into it. Plus, there’s a whole school of local thought devoted to the idea that Las Vegas doesn’t have enough “culture” because it’s so dominated by the industry of the Strip. I don’t even really know what that means––not enough art? Not enough museums? And not enough culture in comparison to what? But maybe when I’m living out there I’ll get bored one day and it’ll suddenly hit me that my boredom stems from the ineptitude of Las Vegas in the culture department. This scenario is unlikely (I’m very under-cultured and I consider it a virtue), but who knows?

On the plane ride home yesterday I sat next to a woman from Connecticut. We got to chatting because she had noticed that some coffee had spilled under her seat, leftover from a previous passenger. She was warning me so I didn’t ruin my bag. (It happens to be one of the five bags carried by female New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 30, because we tend to be sheep over here, but I love it all the same.) She asked if I was from New York or visiting, and I said “from” but then quickly added, “Long Island” so as not to feel deceitful. She said all of her college roommates were from Long Island, that she used to visit all the time and loves it. “I love the East Coast,” she added. “So much better than the West Coast.”

I wasn’t looking for a debate because I wasn’t really looking for a conversation, so I just said, “I don’t know, I could probably get used to Las Vegas.” And then, as if to offer up an explanation, said, “I like the sun,” as if most people don’t like the sun. She just nodded, smiling. “Yes, my sister has lived in Las Vegas for years. She met her husband out there. She loves it—she’s not planning on ever moving back.”

“That’s really good to hear,” I said, meaning it.

**

In LaGuardia Airport, I take my boyfriend’s hand. “Back in New York,” I say with a sigh. “Yeah,” he responds, with a bigger sigh.

We walk through the low-ceilinged, dim, narrow hallway of the terminal, so different from the wide open, gleaming white, slot-machine-lined terminals of McCarran. Here in LaGuardia, there’s just a light-up sign flashing “GOD BLESS OUR TROOPS” and a close-up of what might be either a chicken leg or a mutilated human body part. “Is that an esophagus?” my boyfriend asks. “What the hell is that?”

**

Now at my New York home again, I’ve already started planning my annual Christmas visit, calculating my vacation days and how many JetBlue points I’ll have accrued by then. Someday, maybe sooner than I think or further away than I think, I’ll be planning not just a visit but an all-out relocation. And after I’ve been living there for awhile, I hope to finally write the essay about Las Vegas that I want to write. (Because this one isn’t it.) That essay will be about living in Las Vegas and experiencing the West Coast, and I want it to include the sentence “It is everything I thought it would be.”

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